SALE SHARKS’ handling of his international aspirations was one of the main reasons why Faf de Klerk pledged his future to the north west club, along with a number of other leading stars such as the Curry brothers, Tom and Ben.
As the foremost No.9 in the world and a nominee for the World Player of the Year award, de Klerk, now in his prime at 27, could have chosen virtually any club in the world.
But earlier this week it was announced the 21-cap Springbok would be staying put until at least 2023.
“I think the big thing for me is that I am enjoying my time here and the way we want to play, and I believe in what we are trying to achieve at the club,” de Klerk told The Rugby Paper.
“Also, the club have given me a lot of opportunities to play for the Springboks and haven’t held me back in any way so it’s a good relationship we’ve got.
“That made my re-signing easier, knowing that I have the guys backing and they are still willing to let me play for the Springboks. You can’t ask for any more from the coaching staff and the owners, to give you that opportunity.”
Sale’s willingness to let de Klerk rest during Rugby Championship off weeks contrasted with Wasps and Bath’s approach towards Springbok team-mates, Willie le Roux and Francois Louw, who were kept busy by both club and country.
In exchange, the Springboks released de Klerk back to his club on the same weekend they took on Scotland at Murrayfield in November.
“All parties involved spoke to each other and handled it in the correct way,” de Klerk added. “There was no going behind someone else’s backs, it was all out in the open, and we all agreed on a certain few things. Luckily it all worked out and everyone’s pretty happy with how it ended up.”
When de Klerk arrived in the UK in 2017 no overseas-based players with fewer than 30 caps could be considered for selection by the Springboks. But that ruling was scrapped in May and de Klerk effectively doubled his caps tally in the space of five months by appearing in ten Tests, including the famous
36-34 win against the All Blacks in Wellington, while also redefining scrum-half play with the way he defends.
Re-energised by the move to Sale and the Premiership, de Klerk continues to strive to reach even greater heights.
When asked if he is playing the best rugby of his career, he responded: “I’d never say that, there is always stuff you can work on and, anyway, you’ll never achieve ultimate perfection. I don’t think I’ll ever get close to where I want to be.
“But I am really enjoying where I am at this stage in my career. I’m in a state of mind that I am most comfortable in, with how I read the game and things like that. I am more cool, calm and collected than I was.”
Probably the first name down on the Sale team sheet, de Klerk enjoys equally lofty status in the Springboks set-up.
And, as we enter a World Cup year, de Klerk doesn’t shy away from expressing how important the tournament is to his career and to the South African nation as a whole.
“The ultimate goal for any rugby player is to be in a World Cup side and obviously I’d love to be there, and I’ll do whatever I can to seal the deal.”
Defeats to South Africa and Ireland ended the All Blacks’ aura of invincibility and de Klerk is confident the two-time world champion Springboks can give it a good go in bidding for a third title.
“Three months ago, people said we might as well hand the cup to New Zealand, but things have changed a bit,” he said.
“Talking as a supporter of the Springboks, I am very happy with where we are and where we can go, and I think we can take a lot of confidence out of the year.
“It is going to be immensely tough and we’re still not where we need to be, but I think we can definitely go into the competition expecting a lot of ourselves. The guys know what the coaches want from us so, if we tick all of those boxes, it should go well.”
Riven by political self-interest and violence, these are hard times for South Africa, and de Klerk is all too aware of what a good World Cup campaign would do for the country’s morale, as it did in 1995.
“When you pull off a magical win it seems to lift the whole country. For 80 minutes, you can make the world a better place for a few people. There is so much bad stuff going on now, a good performance on a weekend can put a bit of joy into people’s hearts. You have that responsibility on you as a player once you pull on the Springbok jersey, and in the last few years I think we lost that a little bit, but it is definitely coming back.
“For South Africans, who are constantly in a fight, I think it would mean so much. Obviously, we’re not the only country that plays for honour, but I think we have more to play for than other countries.
“Winning the World Cup would be unbelievably special, it is something that our country needs at this point in time and I know the guys will give it their all.”